Books review: Rabbis behaving badly
Liberals have a history of sparking controversy within British Judaism. Keith Kahn-Harris surveys new books by two trouble-making leaders
This is Not the Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel by David Goldberg (Faber)
Trouble-Making Judaism by Elli Tikvah Sarah (David Paul Books)
In the cacophony of controversy that passes for public debate these days, liberal religion doesn’t get much of a look-in. Despised by fundamentalists for their deviations from “the truth”, ridiculed by radical secularists for their weak-willed attempts to justify the unjustifiable, it can be hard to uphold the value of one’s religion whilst being committed to progressive politics. The Private Eye caricature of Rowan Williams – all tortuous circumlocutions and head-in-the-clouds intellectualism – is usually what passes for the public image of liberal religion.
But there is another kind of liberal religion that is less easy to caricature, that has much more of a “bite”. Giles Fraser’s stance in support of Occupy showed that there is support for radical politics at the heart of the Church of England, just as the radical South American priests of the 1970s and ’80s showed that Catholicism could challenge the powerful. And now a couple of recently published books by UK rabbis demonstrate that progressive politics is alive and well in the Jewish community.
David Goldberg and Elli Tikvah Sarah both serve (as emeritus rabbi in Goldberg’s case) congregations affiliated to the uniquely British Liberal Judaism movement. Founded over a century ago, it is the most theologically radical of UK Jewish movements. Liberal Judaism has tried to be a rational religion, stripping from Jewish liturgy and practice elements that are anachronistic or problematic in the modern world (such as prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple). It is also a universalistic form of Judaism, ambivalent about its particularist, tribal tendencies; the Liberal Jewish God is a fuzzily outlined God, but there is no doubt that he/she/it is a God for all of humanity. Tellingly, the movement was initially reluctant to embrace Zionism (although it has done so subsequently, if not always enthusiastically), given that it is an ideology predicated on Jews being separate from the rest of the world. Liberal Judaism has also been pioneering, conducting gay commitment ceremonies and mixed-faith wedding blessings when they were anathema even to other non-orthodox Jewish movements.
Liberal Judaism is in some ways a very odd movement. At one end, it is dominated by the Anglo-Jewish gentry and its flagship synagogue opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (where David Goldberg serves), has a plush, cathedral-like atmosphere. At the other end, Liberal Judaism is highly diverse, with its synagogues embracing those who find it difficult to fit in elsewhere in Anglo-Jewry.
Elli Tikvah Sarah and David Goldberg represent both ends of this spectrum. Goldberg is urbane, ironic, droll and effortlessly English, suspicious of passion and ideological excessiveness. Sarah is passionate, committed and eager to change the world. What they share is a love of what Sarah calls “trouble-making”, although they do it in different ways.
David Goldberg has a history of denouncing Israel (although not Zionism in all its forms) and its uncritical supporters in the UK, making him a well-known and often controversial figure in the UK Jewish community. This Is Not the Way reiterates his criticisms of Israel as part of a wider polemic over the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. His tone is a kind of amiable cheekiness, delighting in tweaking the noses of his opponents while never becoming abusive.
Goldberg’s argument is that Judaism needs to liberate itself from self-perceptions of victimhood and parochial concerns. An unabashed universalist, he nonetheless finds resources for that universalism within Jewish culture and thought. He feels that much of Jewish religious practice is outdated, given that most Jews barely believe in God any more, and that Jews should have the courage to jettison its anachronisms. Goldberg has little patience for the traditionalist forms of worship that have crept back into Liberal Judaism in recent years. Although clearly learned, his book doesn’t read like a rabbi’s book and his conception of God is vague in the extreme.
In some ways, Elli Tikvah Sarah is much more radical. A onetime lesbian separatist feminist, she was one of the first gay women ordained into the UK progressive rabbinate in the 1980s. Her “trouble-making” spurs were earned in 1996, when she sparked controversy as a guest preacher at a Yom Kippur sermon when she told the congregation that she was going to officiate at a same-sex commitment ceremony. While she was obliged to leave her job as a result (she was working in the more traditionalist Reform Judaism movement at the time, although it too has now allowed same-sex ceremonies), after finding a more convivial home in the Liberal synagogue in Brighton she has continued to push forward, extending the boundaries of Judaism and welcoming those often excluded from Jewish communities.
Trouble-Making Judaism is a collection of essays, sermons and autobiographical pieces. Although, like Goldberg, Sarah does argue for a more critical Jewish stance on Israel, her biggest concerns are with issues of gender, sexuality and the Jewish community. In the most interesting chapter of the book she uncovers the little-known story of Regina Jonas, probably the first ever female rabbi, who perished in the Holocaust. In another she teases out the implications of the story of Bruria, a female scholar mentioned in the Talmud who comes to a nasty end.
While Sarah may be more politically radical than Goldberg, in attempting to find her place in Jewish history and practice she is much more embedded in Jewish tradition than he is. A formidable scholar, Sarah’s book is festooned with footnotes, testimony to a hard-won struggle with Judaism that the comfortably male and English Goldberg has not had to undertake.
For all of their commitment to universal progressive values, the arguments in both Elli Tikvah Sarah and David Goldberg’s books are aimed principally at other Jews. The trouble-making that both of them have engaged with is primarily trouble-making within Judaism.
On at least one occasion, though, at least Sarah has made trouble outside the Jewish community. Although she doesn’t mention it in her book, a few years ago Julie Burchill began attending her synagogue with an interest in converting. Having already gone through her lesbian phase, Burchill did not warm to her prospective rabbi. Apparently looking for a Muslim-bashing ultra-Zionist, like the hunky Israeli men she idolises, she left the synagogue unconverted, in a flurry of vituperative newspaper columns. Speaking as a Jew, putting off Julie Burchill is certainly something I can thank Elli Tikvah Sarah for.